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Craft Guilds in the Early Modern Low Countries: Work, Power, and Representation

Author(s):Prak, Maarten
Lis, Catharina
Lucassen, Jan
Soly, Hugo
Reviewer(s):Richardson, Gary

Published by EH.NET (October 2006)

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Maarten Prak, Catharina Lis, Jan Lucassen and Hugo Soly, editors, Craft Guilds in the Early Modern Low Countries: Work, Power, and Representation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2006. xii + 269 pp. $100 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-5339-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gary Richardson, Department of Economics, University of California, Irvine.

Craft Guilds in the Early Modern Low Countries is an edited collection that summarizes the conclusions of a group of scholars who have, during the last decade, revolutionized our understanding of craft guilds in the late-medieval and early-modern Netherlands. The volume is a seminal contribution to several literatures, a must-read for scholars interested in the economy of early modern Europe, and filled with insights likely to influence scholars interested in a wide range of nations, topics, and time periods.

The collection contains nine chapters. All of them contain valuable insights. In this brief review, I try, but cannot possibly, thoroughly describe them all. My goal is to briefly describe a handful of the most intriguing and important insights in each chapter, in hopes of encouraging readers of this review to read the book.

The first chapter is “Craft Guilds in Comparative Perspective: The Northern and Southern Netherlands, a Survey,” by Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly. This chapter discusses the traditional scholarship concerning guilds, describes issues of recent interest, defines the organizations to be examined, and outlines the broad conclusions of the group. The chapter points out that “few institutions have been so omnipresent as craft guilds in the lives of such a multitude of city dwellers in so many European countries” (p. 1). The chapter notes that craft guilds had many functions. Some of the most important were occupational, social, religious, political, and mutual-aid. The chapter asks why apparently similar institutions served so many different purposes and had such varying effects. The rest of the essay answers these questions.

Chapter 2 is “The Establishment and Distribution of Craft Guilds in the Low Countries: 1000-1800,” by Bert De Munck, Piet Lourens and Jan Lucassen. This chapter examines a database of several thousand guilds representing a large portion of the occupational organizations that existed in the Netherlands over the last one thousand years. The analysis yields a number of distinct patterns. To a large extent, the rise of guilds paralleled the rise of cities and procurement of civic charters. The prosperity of guilds and cities went hand in hand. The guilds played an important part in encouraging the expansion of commerce in cities such as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Amsterdam; but also played a role in their decline, probably by inhibiting innovation and protecting the interests of members at the expense of the public interest. Guilds developed first in the southern Netherlands. On the eve of the Dutch Revolt, the pattern in the North and South was similar. The guild system had matured in most sizeable towns and cities. After the Dutch revolt, developments diverged. The economic and demographic center shifted to the North, where the economy continued to flourish and guilds continued to grow. The political success of the Reformation in the northern Netherlands caused a reorientation of guilds away from religious and towards social functions, such as care for the poor. An appendix to the chapter describes the data, which will probably form the basis for the quantitative study of Dutch guilds into the foreseeable future.

Chapter 3 is “Corporate Politics in the Low Countries: Guilds as Institutions, 14th to 18th Centuries,” by Maarten Prak. The chapter begins with the observation that “the origins and evolution of craft guilds were influenced as much by political developments as economic ones.” The evidence and analysis laid out in the chapter substantiates that statement. The first section discusses the revolutionary activities of guilds in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, beginning with the Battle of the Spurs, on 11 July 1302, when an army of Flemish artisans defeated a force of French aristocratic infantry. During the next two centuries, towns throughout the Low Countries provided artisans in their municipal constitution, a revolutionary act that linked guilds and local politics and the defense of urban social and political orders. Guilds’ involvement in urban politics had in important and symbiotic influence on the evolution of guilds and governments for the next several centuries. Patterns diverged between the south, east, and west. Much can be learned from studying this divergence.

Chapter 4 is “Export Industries, Craft Guilds and Capitalist Trajectories, 13th to 18th Centuries,” by Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly. The chapter examines the trajectories of industries during the late medieval and early modern eras. The chapter concludes that guilds did not intrinsically promote or impede the rise of export industries. The success or failure of industries depended upon which groups wielded economic and political control. The involvement of groups with divergent and conflicting interests in the production of export goods explains the transformations that guilds underwent over time. The organizational structure of export industries followed different courses in the North and the South. Institutional developments in Flanders and Brabant paved the way for the rise of industrial export capitalism from the fourteenth century onward, while seventeenth-century Holland reached the most advanced stage of merchant capitalism.

Chapter 5 is “Dressed to Work: A Gendered Comparison of the Tailoring Trades in the Northern and Southern Netherlands, 16th to 18th Centuries,” by Harald Deceulaer and Bibi Panhuysen. This chapter compares Northern and Southern industries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, examining the relationship between women and guilds, and the extent to and ways in which women were excluded from the organizations. The comparison shows that economic challenges to the same sector in different regions could elicit entirely different institutional responses, which in turn could affect the way the market operated. In the northern Netherlands, which possessed more women and fewer men as a percentage of the population, female seamstresses grew in prominence in garment production during the eighteenth century, while in the southern Netherlands, craft guilds and the garment industry remained more exclusively male.

Chapter 6 is “Religion and Social Structure: Religious Rituals in Pre-industrial Trade Associations in the Low Countries,” by Alfons K. L. Thijs. This chapter shows that from the later Middle Ages onward, craft guilds engaged in religious activities as well as social and economic functions. Free associations of fellow tradesmen even propagated religious worship as their chief mission. Craft guilds and religious brotherhoods often existed alongside one another and were in some cases affiliated. Many craft guilds arose from brotherhoods during the early modern period. After the Reformation in the northern Netherlands, collective requiems to commemorate dead guild members ceased. The decline occurred even in the southern Netherlands, despite the eventual military and political victory of Catholicism there, because the Counter Reformation infringed upon the guild system’s religious, popular, and devotional traditions.

Chapter 7 is “A Tradition of Giving and Receiving: Mutual Aid within the Guild System,” by Sandra Bos. The chapter begins with the observation that “mutual aid for and by the members has figured among the guilds’ responsibilities from the outset” (p. 174) and that guilds struggled to overcome “the problems inherent in insuring small populations” (p. 174). The chapter goes on to explore the variety of mutual insurance systems in early modern guild associations and inquires into the role of religion, municipal administration and economic prosperity in the emergence of these systems. Before the Reformation, mutual aid was often a religious arrangement. After the Reformation, mutual aid continued to be provided, even in the Northern Netherlands, where guilds abandoned their religious roles. The mutual aid consisted of aid to craftsmen who were unable to support themselves due to illness, disability, or infirmity in old age; assistance to widows and surviving children; and funding for funerals and burials of the deceased.

Chapter 8 is “Corporative Capital and Social Representation in the Southern and Northern Netherlands, 1500-1800,” by Johan Dambruyne. This chapter investigates the sources and influence of corporate capital created and accumulated by guilds in the early modern Netherlands. Three kinds of capital are examined. The first is economic capital, or in other words, the material form of accumulated labor. The second is social capital, defined as the benefits arising from a self-sustaining network of relationships. The third is cultural capital, principally being education, science, art, and ideas. The chapter concludes that early modern guilds clearly invested in capital of all three types, but heterogeneity existed in strategies for accumulating and employing capital. Differences existed across industries, time, and towns. Differences also existed between the northern Netherlands, where guilds invested more in economic capital, and the southern Netherlands, where guilds invested more in social capital.

The last chapter, by Jan Lucassen and Maarten Prak, concludes that craft guilds in the Low Countries contributed to the economic, political, social, and religious fabric of the region. Craft guilds fostered medieval and early modern economic development. Craft guilds varied greatly in the tasks that they undertook, structures that they adopted, and ways in which they interacted with the political and cultural systems in which they were embedded. The importance of the local context cannot be overstated, yet a general conclusion can be drawn. “Guilds in the Low Countries played a highly significant role, not only in the lives of their own members, but also in shaping the societies they were part of.”

Now, it is time for my general conclusions. I believe this volume summarizes a wide range of insights into the economy, polity, and society of the late-medieval and early-modern Netherlands. It should be read by scholars interested in that period and scholars interested in the general relationship between institutions and economic development.

Gary Richardson is the author of “Guilds, Laws, and Markets for Manufactured Merchandise in Late-Medieval England,” Explorations in Economic History (2004) and “The Prudent Village: Risk Pooling Institutions in Medieval English Agriculture,” Journal of Economic History (2005).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval